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11 February 2011, 1:00 pm 9 Comments

Zack's Ramblings: What Happened To Olivia Benson’s Sex Life?

This post was submitted by Zack Rosen

If you want to try something interesting, watch Law and Order: Special Victims Unit non-chronologically. It can be quite eye-opening. My boyfriend and I needed a predictable, non-committal show to get us through our December doldrums. With Angel and Veronica Mars behind us, and the wonders of Skins yet to be discovered, we turned to that old stand-by of Law and Order. Like the Mexican restaurant near my parents’ house, where I can go at age 9 or age 25 and always get the same thing, SVU‘s comfortable familiarity gave us a much-needed bland distraction in the coldest of months.

We started at Season 6, where Detective Olivia Benson had just begun her slow transition from human superhero to immortal messiah figure. When we tuned in she was just a kick-ass woman who anchored a hit TV show while providing succor to every victim of sexual abuse in the greater Manhattan area. In short, someone I’d love to have on our side in D.C. I was even brewing her as my next “New Gay Icon” for being a strong woman in a male dominated tv show/profession who also exudes sex-positivity and queer friendliness. Then the craziness started.

In one episode, she single-handedly talked a 6-year old South American immigrant into revealing the location of her child-pornographer captors, busts said  kiddie-porn ring and rescues the child from a live burial. In another she tracks down her half-brother and prevents  him from shooting an evil, revenge-seeking DA by literally talking a gun out of his hands. Then — and I wish this was just a fever dream — she is driving her partner’s wife, Kathy, to a late-term prenatal checkup when they are hit by a drunk driver. Not only does Detective Benson save Kathy’s life when the paramedics are unable to enter their battered car, but she actually delivers Kathy’s baby in the ambulance.

I can deal with melodrama in decidedly over-the-top TV franchises, and after 5 seasons of Battlestar I’m very inured to the idea of one character having a myriad of undiscovered superpowers. So while I stopped finding Benson’s behavior to be believable (or even grounded in the laws of physics and mortality) I still appreciated her as a role-model for anyone who is stronger than the world wants to believe. That is, until I finished season 11 and returned to the beginning.

Some things are the same in SVU season 1. Specifically, Elliot takes his shirt off a lot and Olivia wears extremely unflattering vest-over-t-shirt combos that remind me of Bronson Pinchot. But there was a particular difference that threw me off.  One very early SVU episode begins with Benson in bed with the detective that I can only think of Dennis Duffy. The shot opens with them in post-coital cop bliss and follows her as she gets dressed. Detective Dennis Duffy says what a great time he had, and Benson quips that it wont happen again. They then avoid each other for the rest of the episode. Whatever show that was, it wasn’t the SVU I know and tolerate.

This early iteration of Benson bears as much resemblance to Season 11′s as a guy’s Grindr pic does to his actual face. Season One Benson could almost have been in an episode of Friends. She has so strong a “single girl trying to make it in New York City” vibe that is glaringly incongruous with her characterization today. She was unsure of herself, and prone to mistakes, and most importantly she dated.

And now I know what bothers me so much about Olivia-Benson-as-supewoman: She seems to further that ol’ idealogical chestnut that a woman can be sexual or smart, but not both.

She dates one guy in a later season, but their relationship happens offscreen and she keeps it a secret. Juxtapose that with season one, where her dalliance with a newspaper reporter is the driving point of the whole episode. In season 10 and 11, Olivia’s celibate omniscience even becomes a running joke within the show. In one (particularly surreal) episode, she saves an undercover-Stabler from a crew of murderous animal smugglers by stripping into her bra and pretending to be a southern prostitute. In another she is dressed as a high-powered madam to infiltrate a sex-trafficing ring. As she sits at a bar, in a fur wrap and elbow gloves, trading suggestive quips, the punchline is clear: This is funny because Olivia is too strong and dedicated to her job to ever actually sully herself with such mortal desires as pleasure.

It rubs me the wrong way because gay men face the same trap. No one calls straight guys whores, no matter how many Zeta Pi’s they take home, but when women or gay men try to own their sexuality they are judged for it. It’s invariable. I entered Season 6 thinking that Olivia Benson never had a sexual (and by extension, human) side. Season 1 disabused me of that notion and now I can’t see her character development in the same light.

I still love Olivia Benson, and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t take a lot of inspiration from her. However, it kills me to see her become a straight, female version of Will Truman: Sanitized to sainthood because TV characters (with a few notable exceptions) can be powerful and capable, or sexual, but never both.

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  • James said:

    Love Benson. And I feel this frustration with her sexuality and her inability to express because of the demands of her job, though I do think it’s one of the driving conflicts of her character. Sometimes I wonder how much control Hargitay has over the arc of her character, and whether or not this is a conscious decision of hers to…not desexualize but limit sexual conquests for Benson because of her mother’s (Jayne Mansfield) appeal entirely revolving around her existence as an object of desire and a vessel for sexuality. Benson is always regarded that way, but tends to resist it. Hargitay is such a great actress though and Benson is one of my favorite contemporary feminist television characters, despite the shortcomings mentioned here.

  • Jake said:

    I was sort of bummed that they cut the scene where she and Kathy Griffin’s character kissed in her guest episode. It’s weird that they allow her to pretend to be sexual in the course of her job (such as the bit where she acts all dominatrix to entrap a guy that they played up so much in the previews for the episode) but not much earnestly, in her own personal life. I seem to recall her having some romantic interests, but not actually her having sex. Hmm.

  • Doug said:

    Zack, I really enjoyed this piece. SVU was always a guilty pleasure for me, so I am a bit relieved to discover that you and Michael watch the show. I quit watching the show last year, despite (what my friends call) an unhealthy obsession with Christopher Melon and his ass-o-steel. You are also one of the few gay males that I know that would not use piece this as an opportunity to totally objective him. You can leave that one for me.

  • The Uppity Negro said:

    The shift or desexualization of Olivia turns a lot on the plot point about motherhood. I, too, hadn’t seen a lot of L&O: SVU and watched out of sequence. Around the time she meets her brother there’s also this weird perseveration about Olivia’s mothering abilities. She’d make a “good mom” because she takes in a vic’s kid. She wrestles with adopting. She’s accused any number of times by female vics or witnesses that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about because she’s not a mother. She goes all crazy ballistic about some missing frozen eggs from an insemination clinic (that one was just wackadoodle).

    In the L&O verse she’s can’t be sexy and powerful, but she also can’t be sexy and be a mother. Or maybe the writers are trying to imply that she *is* powerful because she’s not a mother? I could get with that.

  • ladyp said:

    I agree with most of your post, however your comment about having a sexual side being key to being human I found deeply offensive.

    As an asexual, I thank you for calling me not human.

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